Acquisitive yet strangely unimaginative, publishers remind me of sturdy, green-eyed toddlers - the kind of children who would always much rather play with someone else's toy than their own. A few years ago, Fourth Estate had a hit with a little book called Longitude and, ever since, we have been bombarded with popular science books, often with absurd subtitles. When Bridget Jones's Diary raced up the bestseller lists, light bulbs clicked on above the heads of commissioning editors. "Give us sex, shopping and Chardonnay!" they cried with one voice. And lo, the genre that is now generally known as "chick lit" was born.
So, what next? Well, prepare yourself for a barnyard full of "hen lit". The chicks, you see, have grown up. They've finally found their Mark Darcys and, rings safely on fingers, are now at home, grappling with a deficit of sleep and a surplus of Pokemon yogurts and Tweenies videos. However, in the rare moments when their sprogs are napping (or actually watching the Tweenies videos), naturally, they still need something to read - and that something, publishers have decreed, is books about women just like them. Bewildered and besotted by motherhood in almost equal measure, the heroines of hen lit spend their mornings valiantly trying to get baby food out of their favourite cardigans, and their afternoons worrying about why they don't have sex with their husbands any more. Gripping stuff.
That said, Having It and Eating It will, I suspect, prove to be the template that writerly latercomers to hen lit follow. Its author, Sabine Durrant, has a lovely, wry way with words, and conjures up her heroine's suburb, Morton Park (a leafy Clapham-Wandsworth-Fulham hybrid), in such an alarmingly vivid way that I made more than one mental note to myself not to move there. Her heroine, Maggie, is surrounded by bossy types in velvet hairbands who lecture her about the number of E numbers in Mr Men sausages and scrape the breadcrumbs off the fish fingers she offers to their own little darlings (too much sulphur dioxide, apparently). And you thought the office was a jungle.
Maggie has two tiny sons. She lives with - but is not married to - Jake, a man she has known for aeons. He sounds quite a dish and has a big job in advertising. Maggie used to be a journalist, but is now at home full time. She loves her nest and all the feathers she has carefully arranged in it until, one day, she is unsettled by a chance encounter with an old school friend, Claire Masterson, who used to work for Vanity Fair and has sold a screenplay to Disney. She is also involved with a married man, which is why she has mysteriously swapped Manhattan for Morton.
Maggie begins socialising with this sleek singleton, but as Jake's hours at the office grow ever longer and Claire's knowledge of what he is up to grows ever more extensive, she becomes suspicious. She doesn't, however, confront either her sphinx-like partner or her gabby, selfish friend. Instead, she embarks on some naughty behaviour of her own involving the garden shed, a full bikini wax and a rather fetching second-hand tea dress. And she pretty much persists with this until Durrant swoops in and saves her from herself with a blush-inducing, Jane Austen-style denouement.
After I finished reading this flimsy, enjoyable book - it didn't take long and, not having little ones of my own, I must confess that I skipped the odd nursery anecdote - I set to thinking about what publishers will turn their attention to next. Chick lit, hen lit . . . hmm. How about "twi lit", a genre aimed at the HRT generation? With this in mind, I have embarked on Hot Flush, a novel in which an orthopaedic mattress will take centre stage. Any takers?